Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I Dreamed of Africa!

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of going to Africa. There was something surreal and mysterious about it to me-did it really even exist? A place so different than anything I had ever been exposed to. After my parents went several years ago, I saw their pictures and thought to myself, "I want to go to there." It was top of my bucket list (sorry Cathie, I know you hate that phrase).

Fortunately, when we began planning a Fruehling family trip (the last one had been to Maui when my kids were 2), Africa came out on top as the clear choice. Originally, we were going to hit Tuscany, rent a villa and eat a lot of gelato...but I started to worry that it wasn't "active" enough for the three grand kids. So I threw out a sailboat rental through Turkey or Greece, but when my dad said, "Well, what about Africa?", my hand shot in the air! Winner winner, chicken dinner! So began 2 years of planning a trip of a lifetime.

My dad found an amazing travel company called Uncharted Outposts (www.unchartedoutposts.com) . They planned our entire trip with lots of input from all of us of what we "wanted", organized all air in Africa and found us the perfect bush camps. From the get go, our agent was in tune with the ages of the kids, our "outdoorsy" factor and that this was going to be a once in a lifetime trip. We were very pleased with all aspects of the trip and I would highly recommend them.- no detail was left unattended to!

Ironically, when we planned this trip two years ago, we had no idea that we would be living in London. Logistically, living in London turned out to be excellent for all involved. We had a short 8-9 hr flight to Kenya and my folks, Will and Rye could come a couple of days early and do a little London sightseeing.

Our trip had been planned by Uncharted Outposts as a slow progression of wildlife viewing, with the climax being the last camp we stayed at in the Masai Mara. What I loved about our trip is that I honestly can't say that I had a favourite camp...all three were unique in their own way and we took away very different memories from each one.

Our first camp was Lemarti's Camp (www.lemartiscamp.com) - an eco-friendly bush camp in Laikipia, Kenya. What was unique about this camp is that it is owned and operated by a Samburu warrior and his wife (a famous Kenyan fashion designer). They lease the land from the Samburu tribe and therefore all the staff are Samburu. Complete with spears, elaborately beaded head pieces, jewellery, bare-chested and colourful kikoys (sarongs), the staff was amazing. Our NUTTY and HILARIOUS guide was Boniface and his partner in crime was sweet-natured Prame.

At Lemarti's Camp they specialize in engrossing you into the Samburu culture and you become one of the family. While the game viewing isn't spectacular, the local knowledge by the guides on the history of Kenya, the flora, fauna and the culture is what this place is all about. They prefer to do bush "walks" instead of drives, village visits, spear throwing practice, honey harvesting and swimming in the river. Pete even taught one of the Samburu warriors how to play a New Order song on his Samburu guitar-like instrument during sundowners (cocktails) one evening!

The first day we arrived, we were whisked off to attend an engagement ceremony at the village. Instantly, we were introduced to the father of the man who was to be married and the host of the ceremony. The Samburu women were chanting and singing in a circle (in the middle of the goat's enclosure, i.e. poop pile), and young, barefoot kids hovered around the outside of the women. We were tentative at first. The Samburu kids were not. They followed us around, we took pictures of them and they loved to see themselves on the screen. The kids were dirty, many had eye infections, there were flies and the sheep, goats and cattle roamed freely. This is exactly what I wanted Henry and May to see...they didn't need to see extreme poverty in an African slum, but they needed to see that people live differently than they do. A simpler life... a life that is all about family, community and traditions that stem from hundreds of years ago.

We toured the engaged woman's hut...a one bedroom 15 x 15 mud hut. Ironically, she wasn't allowed to participate in the engagement ceremony. She was inside the dark hut while all the women, grandmothers and kids hovered around the outside if it. The Samburu believe in plural marriages, and both male and female circumcision. We ran into two 15 year old boys wearing only black and with white ash on their face. Boni explained that they had recently been circumcised and that they were now considered warriors. This of course led to the discussion of what is circumcision amongst the grandchildren...an enlightening conversation to say the least! Of course, I had to ask about the female mutilation (when the kids weren't around). Boni's response was interesting. He said of course he supports it as it is part of his culture and it is what has always been done. I asked if he would insist his daughter have the procedure and what he thought of it happening to her. He said while he would want to uphold the traditions of his Samburu culture and make his daughter a more desirable wife for her future husband, if she ever said to him that she did not want it, he would abide by her wishes.

After we met the women, we were brought to the warrior's dance party. While they do dance, what they do really well is JUMP! And they can jump high! What was most interesting was the various stages of dress by the men. Some were kitted out in very elaborate Samburu clothes and beaded jewellery, others were half dressed and a couple wore pants and a collared shirt. I guess it is the same as in our world - you have the metrosexuals on one scale all the way to the slobs! We watched the warrior's jump for a long time - kind of like a dance party, they came in when they wanted, did a series of jumps, let out a big WOOP and then let someone else have a go. We got in on the act and did some jumping and some dancing with the warriors.

The next couple of days were spent bush walking, eating the amazingly fresh food the Samburu chefs cooked, spear throwing practice, beading with the local women, sitting around the camp fire, watching the Honey Man gather honey up in the trees and swimming in the river. This might have been the most memorable activity the kids participated in-Boni and Prame took the kids into the brown, thick river that the camp is nestled against. We were assured that crocs and hippos had not been spotted in a "long time"...um, gulp, well ok. I declined the swim and chose to watch from the luxurious chaise lounge in the "mess tent". The kids swam and floated but the real fun began when Boni took them on the other side of the river to the MUD HOLE. He proceeded to pile and slather mud all over the kids and they slipped and slided like hippos. Pretty cool to hear your children shrieking with joy and screaming "I'm a big, fat hippo!"

All in all, our time spent at Lemarti's Camp was outstanding. The d├ęcor was Moroccan/Kenyan safari chic, the food was fresh and delicious (my favourite food of the trip), the service was incredible and the guides were unforgettable. Keep in mind, that this camp is serious glamping...no running water, no electricity and pit toilets (whilst sitting on an elephant's jaw bone). The canvas tents are on platforms, powered by kerosene lanterns at night and the bathrooms are all outside (very private). It was a great start to our trip!

At this point in the blog you might want to know where all the pictures are? Well, thanks to Pete, we took over 1,000+ pictures, so uploading the best ones would take me forever. I have provided a link at the bottom of the page that will take you on a 12 minute slide show of our entire trip. Grab a cup of coffee, tea or a glass of wine and settle in...The best thing we did to prep for this trip was to rent a 400m telephoto lens to use with our DSLR camera!

With great sadness we said goodbye to Boni and Prame at Lemarti's Camp. On our way to the airstrip, we saw our first gazelle and zebra! We were so excited! Little did we know what awaited us at Sirikoi! We jumped on our chartered plane which would take us 20 minutes away to our next camp in the Lewa Conservancy. There were some thunderclouds forming so the pilot flew very low which allowed us to see tons of animals. We all were shrieking "Ohh I see elephants on the left side. Oh giraffes right below." When we landed at the next airstrip, there were zebras, cape buffalo, and rhinos grazing in the plains on either side of the runway. We knew this was an omen to what this next camp had in store for us!

 We set off in two, tricked out Land Rovers for the 20 minute drive to Sirikoi (www.sirikoi.com). As we were passing a giant fallen tree, we came upon 5 magnificent lions lounging in the afternoon sun. There is nothing to prepare you for these majestic creatures and we sat and watched them for a good 30 minutes, cameras clicking. The light was unreal and the lions were trying to wake up and get ready for their active evening ahead. Up until this point, the cousins were so happy to be together and spent most of the time hanging out, laughing and being loud. I will never forget when the kid's truck pulled up to the lions, they were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The looks on their faces was classic...shock and awe at it's finest!

Sirikoi Camp is a remarkable spot. Nestled in the Lewa Conservancy, along a small creek attached to a watering hole, underneath a canopy of giant, shady acacia trees, Sirikoi is a gem in the bush. Surrounded by an expansive green lawn and an electric fence (only to keep the elephants and the giraffes from ruining the acacia trees-all other animals are free to wander the property), the communal lodge and massive outdoor deck is situated. To the right are 4 posh canvas tents with electricity, running water and flush toilets and to the left is the pool and the 2 bedroom cottage where we stayed. Service was amazing, the management and guide service spot on and the food was delicious! All food was communal style on the great big deck and eaten at one big long table. We met Aussies, Canadians, San Franciscans and 2 gay men from LA in the film industry (they were a hoot!).

Being that this was some serious game watching, we were up at 5:45am for a quick coffee and then in the trucks for a 3-4 hour game drive as the sun came up. Back around 10am for breakfast, then chill/nap, lunch at 1pm, then more chill time until you went out on an afternoon game drive at 4:30pm and then dinner at 8pm-we did not miss a MEAL! Of course, all of the adults would nap but we had a tough time convincing the kids it was in their best interest to nap, which resulted in some mid-meal pass outs and tough to get up in the morning. We were at Sirikoi over Christmas and we had a lively Christmas Eve and a lovely late lunch to celebrate on Christmas Day.

Throughout our 4 days here we saw everything-giraffes, herds of 25+ elephants, lions, black and white rhinos (Lewa is one of the only places with a large percentage of these endangered animals) common zebras, Grevy zebras, cheetah, hippo and the elusive leopard. The Lewa Conservancy does a great job of conservation for the landscape and the wildlife. Because of their large rhino population, they pay particular attention to rhino horn poachers. They have a military presence of game rangers who spend the night out in the bush every night watching for poachers. We went and saw a demo of the poacher sniffing Bloodhounds who can track a poacher into their home village even.

What I liked most about Sirikoi is the waterhole and the fact that I could lay in my bed and watch 4-5 elephants come wandering in for a drink. Or that I could sit on our deck, and have a bunch of young impalas come in and run all over the lawn, pronking and chasing one another. I joked with our host, Amory, that he had buttons he could push under the table that signalled the zebras to come in while dinner was being served. The entire camp was relaxing, in a beautiful setting, fun to mingle with the  other guests and had great game viewing (but not super intense).

After 4 days at Sirikoi, we packed up and headed to the famous Masai Mara Reserve. The weather during our three days in the Mara was wet. While it was still warm, we had several thundershowers and heavy down pours which made the game drives quite slippery and the river crossings quite exciting. After we did a touch down on the airstrip to clear all the animals on it, we landed in the Mara to be met by our guides Duncan and Daniel. On all sides of the airstrip were zebras, topi, gazelle, impalas and wildebeest in abundance! Duncan and Daniel were terrific guides and new everything there was to know about the Mara and its inhabitants. The details they gave us about the different wildlife was astounding-we all learned so much! As we headed to Mara Plains Camp, we ran into a herd of elephants on the hillside and observed the "Honey Boys" - 2 cheetah brothers just lounging under an acacia tree.

Our last camp was called Mara Plains Camp(http://greatplainsconservation.com/mara_plains/index1.html), located in the Olare Orok Conservancy...30,000 acres of private land, with only 4 safari camps. Like the Lewa Conservancy, the Olare Orok allowed us an intimate view of the animals without the congestion of the regular Mara Reserve. There are three prides of lions (20+ per pride), several groups of cheetah and a couple of leopards among all the other cape buffalo, wildebeests, giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos and antelope. Mara Plains is located on a small river and in order to reach the camp you have to cross a suspension bridge so it feels like you are entering rugged, wild terrain...and you are! Hippos and crocs in the river, a resident leopard under one of the tent platforms and various bush babies, monkeys and jennet cats scurrying around on top of the tents! The camp hosts, Richard and Lorna, are lovely people and have a great passion for their work. Richard is a bevy of information on conservationism, Kenya, animals, and well, everything! Lorna the Lioness was refreshingly warm, great with the kids and an interesting, free spirit to talk to. She even read the kids the first chapter of her children's book she is writing-it was brilliant! They both went above and beyond to make sure we were all happy!

Oh one last thing on Mara Pains Camp...it is owned partially by National Geographic and partially by a husband-wife team of filmmaker and photographer, Dereck and Beverly Joubert. They live in Botswana but spend a lot of time at Mara Plains. They primarily study lions and leopards but they have been making documentary films for the past 30 years. They were at Mara Plains when we were there so lots of interesting conversations...

So back to the game viewing. It is serious here. Up early, out the majority of the morning, a short rest and then out again until it was after dark. But the game viewing was amazing. The Masai Mara is home to the Great Migration and due to the late thunderstorm activity in December some of the wildebeest and zebras never migrated, so there were quite a few still hanging around and confused! Which means the lions and hyena were nice and fat from so many dining options. The most remarkable thing we saw was a lioness hunt down and chase a zebra through a river crossing. We came upon the huge dazzle of zebras crossing the river and we went down to watch. Just as we shut off the engine, a lone lioness came up behind our truck along the river bank. The hunt was on. She jumped into the river and jumped up on the zebra's back but the zebra gave a powerful kick and sent her flying. With the wind knocked out of the lioness, she continued the chase but was too slow. The lucky zebra lived to see another day! It was the highlight of our trip and one of the most exciting things we have ever seen...exhilarating!

After 3 days at Mara Plains Camp, we reluctantly said goodbye and flew back to Nairobi. We stayed at a day lodge called The Ngong House  (we were on a red eye home) full of tree houses and delicious food (www.ngonghouse.com).  We swam, relaxed and we took a visit to an elephant orphanage later in the afternoon. Uncharted Outposts had adopted 3 baby elephants for the kids and we got to watch them eat their evening bottles. They were quite cute and all of them curled up and fell fast asleep. May, Henry and Rye like to say they got baby elephants when asked what they got for Christmas.

Three weeks after returning, I am still dreaming of Africa. I love looking at our pictures and remembering all the amazing experiences we shared. I am reading every book I can on Africa and my awareness of what is happening in Africa (Kenya in particular) has risen. On May's first day back at school she said "Europe and the US are so boring. I wish I was back in Africa." Me too May.

A big thank you to my mom and dad for generously creating such wonderful memories for their kids and grand kids. We will never forget.

12 minute video links below - I think You Tube has better resolution! (skydrive and youtube):